The Chicago Blackhawks this week took criticism for their refusal to change their team name and logo.
The Hawks decision was announced just days after the Washington Redskins, whose name many consider to be a racial slur, and the Cleveland Indians said they were looking into a name change.
The Blackhawks defended their moniker earlier this week, arguing that it honors the past and pays tribute to the Native American hero Black Hawk. The Blackhawks, who regularly honor Native Americans with gameday performances, instead pledged to “expand awareness” of Native contributions.
To understand where the backlash is coming from — and the damaging effect these names can have — Reset spoke with Dave Zirin, a leading voice when it comes to sports and equality.
Here are a few highlights from the conversation:
On why Native American mascotry is so harmful
Dave Zirin: The science is known on this, and it has two effects … , no matter how benign people think it might be. The first effect, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is that it harms Native kids. It harms kids in Indian country. It harms how they view themselves relative to the rest of the world and what they think their ceiling is in terms of what they can accomplish in the world. That’s one thing that we know. You’re good enough to be a mascot, and that’s it.
The second thing that we know … is that when non-Native people absorb the idea of Native mascotry, one of the things that it does is that it makes it easier to ignore the actual real problems facing Indian country. Whether you’re talking about things like the incarceration rates, rates of police brutality, infant mortality, nutrition, food deserts, I mean, the list is very long in terms of the problems on the various [reservations] in the United States. And mascotry, it allows us to turn a blind eye.
On the Blackhawks statement
Zirin: I was so dismayed as a Washingtonian to see the the pushback from Blackhawk Nation, from the Chicago Blackhawks organization, because any time you see something like that, all it’s going to do is make Dan Snyder, [the owner of Washington’s football team, who has also argued his team’s name honors the Native community], it’s going to make people like that feel that much more confident. When Trump puts out a tweet saying Native American mascots are awesome and we should revere them, that’s the sort of thing that makes the worst racists in the sports world that much more confident that they can push ahead and win this fight.
On educating fans — and changing minds
Zirin: I’ve done talks in Chicago in the past where I talk about the Blackhawks mascot and make the case for it to change and for people who are open-minded about it and are willing to sit through an argument about like, does this educate or miseducate about Native American history? Does this honor or dishonor Native American history? Is this just the equivalent of us naming missiles Tomahawk missiles and military missions like Operation Geronimo because we think it somehow honors people that we defeated? But actually, all that really does is it honors the conquesters. It honors the people who are able to win those battles and then say, wow, you were so tough to defeat, I shall now name my military hardware after you.
It’s very similar in the sports mentality. People think it’s honoring a name, but it’s actually dishonoring the name. But my experience in Chicago is that when people are willing to listen and actually take a second to step outside of their fandom, they see it much more as an issue of right versus wrong. But when people are completely blinded by fandom or choose to look at it through the prism of cancel culture and political correctness instead of the prism of racism versus anti-racism, then it becomes a much more difficult argument.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.